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Peek into a room of meditating people, and you will be struck by their stillness. They sit, eyelids lowered, with their backs straight and hands at rest, breathing slowly and evenly.

Inside their brains, they are still and quiet, too, concentrating on their breaths, a phrase or an image.

Oddly, this quiet activity, done consistently, has a powerful positive effect on people, physically, mentally and emotionally. In addition to relieving anxiety and stress, meditation has been found to reduce pain, lower heart rates, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and reduce the risk of stroke or heart attack.

As the pace of life quickens, more people are seeking relief in the centuries-old practice of meditation. Once an esoteric, religion-based practice, secular meditation is offered in many settings. It is often included in corporate wellness programs, and is being explored by the U.S. Marine Corps as a way to keep Marines healthy and improve their resiliency.

Plenty of people in this area are catching on to the benefits of meditation. Meditator Marguerite Battaglia says that Western New York boasts “a remarkable number” of meditation groups. (See sidebar.)

The benefits, which have been documented in scientific studies, are linked to physical changes in the brain, says Stephan Bodian, a psychotherapist and author of “Meditation for Dummies” (Wiley, $24.99). “From the research on meditation that I cite in the book, the indication is that meditation actually changes the brain, literally growing and shrinking gray matter,” says Bodian in a phone conversation from his Tucson home. “Meditation enhances parts of the brain that are related to concentration, memory and positive feelings of well-being, and tends to de-emphasize and shrink the parts of the brain related to fear, anxiety and negative emotions.”

The impact is gradual, Bodian says, but begins soon after people start to meditate regularly. “People who meditate may not even notice the changes at first,” he says. “But the people around them notice it. They say, ‘You are not as reactive as you used to be, you are so much mellower!’”

The physical improvements appear to be caused by a decrease in stress and anxiety, which have been proven to have damaging effects on the body.

Without meditation, “Your thinking mind goes running wild,” says Battaglia, of Buffalo, who has meditated for eight years with the Peaceful Heart Mindfulness Community, among other groups. “They call it a monkey mind; you are thinking too much and making up stories that include worries about the future or regrets about the past.”

Marine Corps officials are testing an eight-week course in “Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training,” which may help Marines regain their equilibrium after stressful events. The program was developed by former U.S. Army Capt. Elizabeth Stanley, a professor at Georgetown University, who found that meditation and yoga relieved her Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

What is meditation?

It looks so simple, and yet the practice of meditation is complex enough to keep people mentally occupied for years, even decades. Bodian has meditated since the mid-1970s; Dennis Hohman of Orchard Park, who belongs to the Awakening Community, a group of mostly experienced meditators, has meditated for some 30 years.

Anyone can meditate, nearly anywhere. Many experts suggest that beginners start by just sitting comfortably, closing their eyes and concentrating on their breathing.

“It sounds so simple, but it is so hard,” says Battaglia. “Set a timer for five minutes, and count one on your in breath and two on your out breath, until you get to 10, and then go back to one again, and I almost guarantee that by the time you get to six, you will forget that you’re on six, and you’ll have to go back, or you’re on 11 or 12 and you’ll have to go back to 10.”

Beginners are astonished to find how difficult it is to calm their minds and focus on their breath for just 10 breaths at a time.

As people concentrate on their breaths, they become present in their bodies, clearing their minds of fear, regret and anxiety.

With clarity comes the ability to shed burdens. “If you meditate, it becomes clear what you need and don’t need in your life,” says Battaglia. “You’ll realize you don’t need certain kinds of people, certain kinds of things. Through meditation you become less attached to things, and attachment and desire are what get us all tangled up.”

Hohman says those who meditate regularly “won’t notice the effects on a daily basis, but it’s a cumulative effect. Things that used to upset you or rattle you – social situations, employers, difficulties in life – don’t seem to throw you the way they once did, and you can handle the daily vicissitudes of relationships with aplomb, much more calmly and better relaxed.”

Hohman says he can look back and see how he has changed. “There’s been an enormous reduction of generalized fear and anxiety in my life,” he says.

Setting the mind on idle

In his foreword to Bodian’s book, Dr. Dean Ornish writes that while “learning to meditate was one of the smartest decisions I ever made,” he is aware of the objections people who don’t meditate have about the practice. People who don’t meditate fear that it might be boring, esoteric or difficult, while Ornish counters that meditation is interesting, familiar, natural and powerful.

But how is doing nothing and thinking of nothing not boring?

“When you are sitting there, you are so busy – you can’t believe how busy you are,” says Battaglia.

People are used to being stimulated and preoccupied; the purpose of meditation is to hit the “pause” button, Bodian says: “Minds tend to find that boring initially ... but after a while you start experiencing the pleasures of meditation, the pleasures of the moment for what it is right now.”

The challenge of meditation – of keeping your mind clear of intrusive thoughts – “becomes interesting,” Bodian says. “How attentive can I be? How present can I be? ... You are learning a new skill, and that’s always interesting. Then eventually you start enjoying it.”

Power of the group

Western New York has quite a few meditation groups, which Hohman has seen burgeon from just one or two groups when he started meditating in the 1980s.

“What seemed to be a real catalyst was the visit of the Dalai Lama to the University at Buffalo in 2006,” Hohman says. “A number of people in meditation groups got together and worked with UB as part of community outreach. We found all kinds of people who had been in small groups or just meditating by themselves, and after that it just seemed as though the groups all grew in size.”

While many meditation groups are rooted in a spiritual tradition or even held in a place of worship, most commonly Buddhist, Bodian writes that every major faith has a tradition of meditation, including Christian prayer and Jewish contemplation.

“What meditation is about simply is being present in the moment,” Bodian says. “It cuts across all religious or spiritual traditions. Suppose you want to be more like Christ, which is one of the goals of the Christian tradition. Being present in the moment can make you more compassionate to the people around you so you can be more responsive and give more.”

Nondenominational meditation is offered in many different venues. “Nowadays it’s very common to be able to learn meditation through mindfulness groups, or in community education classes at colleges,” says Bodian. Some day spas and yoga studios, where a few minutes of mindfulness practice are often offered at the end of each yoga class, also offer meditation opportunities. “There are now corporations that include meditation in their corporate wellness programs,” says Bodian.

The key to reaping the benefits of meditation is not to do it perfectly but to do it often, says Bodian. “If you wanted to run a marathon, and you ran a mile and then didn’t run for three or four days, and then ran a mile again, you’d never get anywhere,” he says. “You run gradually and frequently and work your way up, just like meditation. If you do this on a regular basis, you are gradually able to remain aware for longer and longer periods of time. Practice is the key, like any skill.”

email: aneville@buffnews.com